West Tisbury started it several years ago with a very worthy first choice, Daniel Waters, who set the bar high for his esteemed successors, Fan Ogilvie and Justen Ahren. We heard rumors and murmurs that Vineyard Haven was considering a similar position, but nothing came of it. This year Edgartown jumped into the game with another terrific choice, Steve Ewing, the people’s poet, if you will, who builds docks and wears a kilt reciting Bobby Burns.
Just this past week there was great fanfare as three of these four Poet Laureates -- Justen Ahren, Steve Ewing and Dan Waters -- presented themselves and their poems and songs at a reading hosted by Pathways at Featherstone, part of the Featherstone Summer Poetry Festival.
The rise of interest in poetry is nothing short of astonishing in this media-rich time. Yet it may be that rap and hip-hop recordings, poetry slams, and the immediacy of the spoken word have found a chord that no other art form can articulate.
But what is it a Poet Laureate actually does?
Nothing much, it turns out. Poets are notoriously lazy and just scribble a few lines here and there for which they are given very little in return. Ah, but Poet Laureates! These are the jewels in the crown. These are the poets who commemorate events, who get all the acclaim – and traditionally a laurel wreath to wear like a crown, hence the name Laureate.
Which brings me to Lee Mccormack, the first Poet Laureate of Martha’s Vineyard.
Some months ago William Waterway Marks, who shepherds the Cleaveland House Poets, came to the conclusion that, while it is great to have town poet laureates, who commemorate town meetings with a verse benediction or who visit the schools and perform, what we really needed was an island-wide Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate. And so Waterway began to spread the idea around, visiting meetings of selectpersons, speaking to island librarians and getting the word out to the poetry community. Stalwart stuff and unselfish, Waterway’s work paved the way. He created a Facebook group Martha’s Vineyard Poetry Society. He put out a call for poets to submit their work to a panel of ten impartial judges selected from the community, and he worked through all of the manuscripts from seventeen poets, making sure everyone had a fair and unbiased chance to win the Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate honor.
Lee Mccormack was one of those poets. His poems had become familiar over the winter as he would post his astonishing new work regularly in the Martha’s Vineyard Poetry Society Facebook group. The poems were staggering in their beauty, their humanity and their imaginative use of language, and everyone knew it immediately. Where had this guy been? Mccormack’s poems were received with raves on Facebook and the Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate judges felt the same.
When the word came down that Lee Mccormack was to be named Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate there was an outpouring of gratitude for the rightness of this choice. Let me quote a very recent poem in full to give you an idea of what I mean.
What Use Complaining?
Because of this modern age, this time of genetics and steel,
there's no place left for mystery. To still use words,
absolution, spirit, salvation, soul. . . It's useless —
we're too uneasy. A friend says, I'm cold.
(Put on a coat.) No — it's this frozen disbelief. . .
If the sun collapses tomorrow it couldn't be worse.
I knew what he was saying — isn't this the way
we feel, trapped in a backyard of senses,
chained to a fence of sleet?
If the weather's changing, the wind
cannibalizes itself and the sky is eaten, so what?
Who sees fingerprints of friends that OD'd
coruscate on an empty glass,
or kisses the lipstick impression
of their mother's mouth on a knife
blade while preparing a meal?
Now who goes out, leaves the gate open,
and talks to the dead except to say, You belong to me?
I used to count on things — the consistency
of blood, its ability to overcome
gravity in the morning and still be
passionate at night. . . And even if nature
disciplines us with a stick, I will go on
believing hands should caress,
except. . . Even sex is a danger now
and passion only happens when the wind
rattles its knuckles against closed doors.
What's left? A photograph or two,
a few glances, the storm-wrenched back of a tree. . .
Some prayers for the dead, the cries
of plovers returning to nest
in marshes of salt-burned grass. . .
And the unfinished work, the nervous sweat
of windows seeping light into the neck
of a headless, evening mist rising
like Lazarus from the sea.
LHM © 2012
Of course, Lee Mccormack has a lighter side which many know from his satirical Cluck-o-Matic corporation, his many witty posts and acerbic comments on Facebook. He seems to be a master of that, too.
When I mentioned to him casually that if he were chosen Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate he would have to write a shark poem because his investiture would be announced at JawsFest on the big stage, Mccormack came up with this clever verse:
Chomp chomp chomp
went their great big teeth.
That's one more human
that can't hurt the reef.
Ok, you get the idea. Lee Mccormack is not only a fine and serious poet, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously either, and, believe me, that is as rare in poetry as the porcelain dentures worn by Nancy Luce’s hens.
Well, here’s to Lee Mccormack, the first Poet Laureate of the entire island of Martha’s Vineyard! Long may he reign!